The coup in Bolivia and the failure of ‘Pink Tide’ reformism

Nov. 2019 Bolivia march


On Nov. 10, Evo Morales resigned as president of Bolivia on the “request” of the head of the armed forces; he and Vice President Alvaro García Linera soon found refuge in Mexico. Jeanine Añez Chavez, a member of the National Assembly, declared herself “interim president,” an illegal act that has been widely denounced at rallies and public forums.

For three weeks, right-wing mobs had rampaged in the streets, attacking Morales supporters and burning and pillaging the houses of leaders of his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). Following Morales’ forced resignation, people from El Alto, a working-class and largely Indigenous city of one million residents, marched on La Paz to confront the right wingers. Police attacked them with firearms—killing at least three.

Morales, the country’s first Indigenous leader, had won four elections in a row, including substantial majorities in the first three. In the last election, on Oct. 20, Morales took over 47 percent of the vote. After the MAS asked the Organization of American States (a grouping that is dominated by Washington) to review the election process, the OAS responded that it had found serious problems. The OAS determination served to bolster allegations of “fraud” by Carlos Mesa, who had received the second largest amount of votes, and a call by him to bar Morales from any new election.

Donald Trump, who is glad to shake the hands of dictators throughout the world, applauded the coup, labeling it “a significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere.” The U.S. has always been eager to see Morales go; his professed anti-imperialism and friendship with the Cuban and Venezuelan leaderships ran counter to Washington’s goals of extending its neo-colonial domination over more of the Latin American region. Moreover, despite Morales’ assurances that the country was “open for business,” his government was not thought to be sufficiently able to withstand anti-capitalist pressures from the mass movement.

And finally, by removing Morales and the MAS from power, the U.S. and the international capitalist class hoped to cripple the traditionally militant working-class movement of Bolivia, which includes trade unions that have their roots in revolutionary socialism.

Morales and the MAS came to power in December 2005 at a time when upsurges had rocked several Latin American countries. As an outcome of the mass mobilizations, populist and reformist political leaders were elected to office in several countries—a development that became known as the “Pink Tide.”

Morales was considered by some to be a “socialist,” as the name of his party implies. But despite receiving support at the polls by most sections of the working class and small peasants, he and his party presided over a country that remained capitalist. Major reforms, such as dividing the big plantations among the landless peasants, were neglected. Morales readily dangled tax breaks and other incentives to attract multi-national corporations.

In order to view the accomplishments of his government, it is worth looking back at the events that brought Morales to power. A wave of mass mobilizations shook Bolivia during the first five years of the new millennium. Several governments fell in succession, working-class activist councils were established—creating a situation that verged on dual power—and the country was brought to the brink of revolution.

The protests of 2005 were touched off by the lifting of gas and oil subsidies by the Carlos Mesa regime, with a corresponding rise in prices. The Confederation of Bolivian Workers (COB), the miners’ union, and the central regional council of El Alto (a large working-class city near La Paz) called for re-nationalizing the oil and gas industry—which had been returned to private hands in the neo-liberal schemes of the 1990s—and replacing the bourgeois parliament with a workers’ government based on people’s assemblies.

At the same time, a right-wing force gathered strength, based largely around the eastern lowland department of Santa Cruz (and the city of the same name), an area of large farms and close to the main oil fields. There was a racist component to the division, since Santa Cruz contained many people of European ancestry who considered themselves superior to the Indigenous people who predominate in the Andean highlands. (Santa Cruz is also the base of Carlos Fernando Camacho, a Christian fundamentalist, white supremacist, and ultra-rightist who was the most prominent leader of the recent mob actions against the Morales government and its supporters.)

Evo Morales, the head of the coca-growers’ union and the Indigenous leader of the Movimiento al Socialismo, did not play a leading role in the mass rebellion of those years but used the momentum to build an electoral movement. In effect, his candidacy for president succeeded in containing the protests within the bounds of the electoral process.

In June 2005, after a two-year stint in the presidency, Carlos Mesa was forced to resign due to the protests. His successor, Eduardo Rodríguez, filled in for six months more. In December 2005, Morales won a decisive victory in a four-person presidential race. He received a high number of votes in the highland districts at the geographical heart of the workers’ movement. However, not all of the workers’ organizations that had taken a leading role in the 2003 and 2005 mobilizations gave support to Morales and the MAS, which some of them considered to be a pro-capitalist peasant party.

In the Socialist Action newspaper of February 2006, staff writer Gerry Foley was able to trace the measures and half-measures that Morales took during his first days in the presidency. For one thing, Morales put forward a general “anti-imperialist” program, which was received warmly by Fidel Castro in Cuba and by Chavez in Venezuela when Morales visited them after his victory. One of his key issues was against the U.S. “War on Drugs,” which had promised to stamp out coca growing in the region.

But Morales was already granting concessions to capitalism. Foley cited a report in the Bolivian radical website Econoticias (Dec. 28, 2005) that Morales had received approval from representatives of the land-owning oligarchy in Santa Cruz when he promised to respect private property. Indeed, one of his first decisions in office was to smooth the way for capitalist interests to exploit the large iron and magnesium deposits in the southeastern part of the country.

In regard to re-nationalizing the oil industry, Foley again quoted an Econoticias report (Jan. 6, 2006): “Morales’ promise is to carry out a symbolic nationalization, which amounts to applying with minor adjustments the present hydrocarbon law [imposed by his predecessor Carlos Mesa], which retains the ownership of the hydrocarbons for the Bolivian state while they remain in the ground or as they come to the surface. Once they come one meter above the ground, into the so-called mouth of the well, all the hydrocarbons become the property of the transnationals that operate in Bolivia, which will continue to be in charge of exploration, production, sales, exports, and refining of the hydrocarbons.”

In an article dated Jan. 26, 2006, the British Economist magazine stressed the threat of radicalism in the Morales regime, while at the same time noting the new president’s reassurances to the capitalists: “He also called for private investment, for an ‘alliance’ against the drug trade with the United States, and hinted that he might support an Americas free-trade accord if it helped small business.”

In respect to land reform—a pressing demand of the poor peasants—Morales’ plan was meager. It called for the distribution of 2.2 million hectares of state-owned land to poor farmers, but did not touch the 25 million hectares owned by 100 wealthy families. Morales also promised the oligarchs that the government would repress any attempts by peasants to seize more land. That promise was fulfilled in June 2006, when police violently attacked several actions by landless peasants to occupy the land.

While the Morales government was able to significantly lower poverty rates over the years, it still remains high (63 percent below the poverty line in 2002 and 35 percent in 2018). In the meantime, foreign capitalist investment has come roaring in, lured by government concessions and the abundance of cheap labor. While foreign direct investment was at $250 million in 2005, it reached $1750 million in recent years, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America. A BBC article states that in the past decade over 300 international retail chains decided to enter Bolivia, many of them attracted by the growth of big shopping malls.

Although Evo Morales’ government undertook some nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry, as stated above, over 80 percent of the oil and gas fields remain in the hands of multi-national corporations, according to the La Paz-based Center for Labor and Agrarian Development (CEDLA). Big Oil has been handed a number of incentives, including low taxes and opening of protected areas and national parks to drilling. Natural gas was over 32 percent of the country’s exports in 2017.

Mining companies (zinc is the principle ore) have gained similar perks; the transnational San Cristóbal corporation, for example, pays less than 10 percent of the value of its exports for royalties and taxes, CEDLA reports. Bolivia’s vast but untapped lithium reserves, necessary for battery production, are being developed in one location by a state-owned company and in two other locations in a joint venture with Chinese and German investors. The German firm, ACI, was given a sweetheart 70-year contact and virtual control over management of the lithium mines in the pristine Uyuni salt flats, plus permission to export 80% of the ore to Germany. After mass protests, on Nov. 4, Morales moved to rescind the concessions he had granted—but it was too late; the coup took place a week later.

In his February 2006 article, Gerry Foley summed up: “It is clear that Morales is just another populist politician in a long Latin American tradition. His objective is to keep the mass revolt against imperialist and capitalist exploitation within the bounds of the existing economic and parliamentary system.”

Populism is generally lifted into power on the strength of its promises to enact major reforms to benefit working people and the poor peasants. Populists often claim that they, and only they, can “save” the nation. They often make use of nationalist rhetoric and blast the intervention of Yanqui imperialism into the homeland.

But soon the bills become due; loans to the international banks must be paid, while dissatisfied peasants are taking over the land and workers are walking out in strikes. Since the populists have failed to significantly reduce the power of the capitalist class and their imperialist big brothers, they find their space to maneuver greatly restricted. In order to stay in power, they have to shelve their earlier promises to the workers, give more and more concessions to the capitalists who really run the country, make deals with the imperialists, and rely more and more on the military and police to “keep order.”

On the other hand, as Gerry Foley pointed out in 2006, Bolivia’s history of militant rebellion by working people and poor peasants could not be denied. Morales was “facing a more dynamic and conscious mass movement than similar populist leaders in the past.”

“Thus,” Foley wrote, “Bolivia remains a powder keg, and the imperialists have good reason to be worried. Supporters of the right of self-determination and the rights of labor have to remain alert to oppose imperialist threats to Bolivia and attempts by the capitalist press to project an image of the developments in the country designed to justify imperialist pressures and even eventually intervention.”

As it turned out, the workers’ movement and unions—despite their history of militancy—failed to move to take power in their own name. Morales and his party, as pro-capitalist reformers, were able to keep the mass movement bottled up. A Constituent Assembly was called, but its proposals failed to transcend the bounds of the capitalist state. A true revolutionary socialist party, capable of coordinating and leading the struggle for a real workers’ government and state, was never built.

Morales won the recent vote, but the capitalists, the ultra-right, and Washington felt he had become both vulnerable and expendable. At the end, Morales felt he could rely on the military and police to keep order—but they betrayed him.

The organized Bolivian labor movement should take the initiative in building a broad united front against the coup, and a nationwide general strike. At the same time, it is important to restore the working-class committees of struggle that sprang up over a decade ago. A good start is the call by the Federation of Neighborhood Councils (Fejuve) in the city of El Alto to “form self-defense committees, blockades, permanent and forceful mobilization” against the coup.

International actions in solidarity with the Bolivian people are likewise crucial. Just as Gerry Foley pointed out in 2006, direct imperialist intervention remains an ongoing danger. It is necessary to demand: “U.S. Hands Off Bolivia!”




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